IWD2018: The Revolution is Here

When I woke this morning, March 8th, 2018, I found myself in a somewhat cynical mood. It was International Women’s Day, a day utilised by activists, organisations, governments, movements, civil society and individuals all over the world to celebrate and highlight the achievements of women and girls.

My cynicism emerged at the obvious point – how is it that we still need a single day to commemorate the achievements of more than half of the world’s population? To me, and to many all over the world, this is completely absurd, especially when the day is routinely commemorated by men merely by treating the women in their lives to a nice dinner or a bouquet of flowers, as if it was some other capitalist driven romantic excuse like Valentine’s Day.

That same cynicism subsided, however, when I began to reflect on where we’ve come since IWD2017. Since then, entire industries have risen up and called long-overdue attention to the incessant harassment faced by women in the workplace, to the pay gap between women and men all over the Global North and especially in the Global South, to the lack of representation of women in leading film and television and the inclusion rider clause that holds a renewed possibility of bringing much-needed diversity. There is a renewed wave of activism, of mobilisation, and even – dare I say it – hope for revolutionary shifts in the treatment of women in the workplace, gender parity, and acceptability of violence against women in all its forms.

When Donald Trump assumed (read: stole) the presidency early last year, his ego-fuelled inauguration was dwarfed by the outpouring of support for women’s rights in Women’s Marches around the globe. “Enough is enough”, the world seemed to be crying out. The rise of Trump’s nationally endorsed sexism was not to be taken as a norm that represented the will of the American people, and millions of women and male allies have taken to the streets time and time again in the ensuing 14 months to show that the era of patriarchal oppression must come to an end.

No longer would predators like Trump, Weinstein, and an ever-growing list of offenders in positions of power be immune to public scrutiny and impunity for the assault and predation of women and girls. No longer would these women and girls feel forced to idly accept their fate as an oppressed class and lack the outlets necessary to speak out. No longer would hate-spewing politicians and celebrities be able to rise to power through admission and braggadocio about their blatant mistreatment and abuse of women.

The subsequent #MeToo and #TimesUp movements (along with a growing list of global articulations including #YoTambien, #QuellaVoltaChe, #BalanceTonPorc, and #Ana_kaman) have added fuel the fourth wave feminist fire, bringing about a full-scale revolution to improve the lives of women and girls around the world and bring equality and justice to the forefront of every conversation. Intersectionality as a concept is rapidly being lifted from the obscure recesses of academic rhetoric into public dialogue, recognising the multi-layered oppressions found at the intersections of sex, gender, race, class, sexual orientation and ethnicity.  Today, the headlines give accounts of domestic strikes, protests, demonstrations, powerful speeches and colossal marches filled streets and public spaces around the world. The time truly is NOW.

I have had the distinct pleasure of working with bold and unwavering activists in both urban and rural spheres of the Global South, learning from a vast network of feminist leaders in Uganda and across sub-Saharan Africa, and am now beginning to learn from the movement’s leaders across South and Southeast Asia. I have lived alongside the tireless mothers, aunties, grandmothers, sisters and daughters of rural Uganda and Tanzania who work the fields, clean, cook, buy and sell at the market, fetch water, not to mention birth and raise the children, send them to school, help them with their homework, all while blazing a trail for fair treatment and political representation. As an aspiring male ally (always aspiring to remain accountable to the changing needs of the feminist movement), I am overflowing with gratitude and appreciation for what these women and girls have taught me through their courage and perseverance. And there is still so much to learn.

We all have a part to play – women, girls, men, boys…all of us – in lifting ourselves out of the archaic ashes of an oppressive past and fighting for what is right, for equality, for equity, for inclusion, for non-violence, for progress, for peace. There is so much we can do: raise your voice, support one another, share the workload, get involved, educate the next generation, know your rights, join the conversation, give to the cause. In whatever way you can, be a PART of this. The world is about to change in unprecedented ways, and you can be on the right side of history.

It’s easy for our cynicism to get the best of us, but this International Women’s Day, the more I look around, the more I see a relentless onslaught of causes for optimism. The world’s longest-oppressed class, comprising half of the world’s population, is ushering in a new era of human evolution, one in which we all work together to keep this species moving forward as one. This year, skip the dinner and the flowers…the revolution is here. Join it.




Acceptance, Fasting, Culture Porn

I wanted to start today with a post about acceptance (having just begun the Acceptance pack on Headspace, seems appropriate!). Alas, nonstop travel has once again left my body in shambles, and a cold has taken over. Fortunately I have a number of tasks to accomplish online today so, I accept that the Universe is telling me to sit still, rest, meditate, write, and take care of some business. Plus there’s free hot water for my tea. Sorted.

Sitting in the cafe of a guest house in Luang Nam Tha in the far north of Laos, near the Golden Triangle bordering China and Myanmar. Formerly a major opium trading route, government crack-downs have helped transform this place into a launching point for some of the best trekking and culture porn opportunities in Laos.

Wait. Culture porn? Huh?

Luang Nam Tha province is home to over 20 unique and diverse ethnic groups (from the Akha to Tai Dam, Lanten, Khmu, Hmong, Yao, Tai Lue, Sida, Lahu, Tai Deng, Panna, Tai Nuea, the list goes on) all lumped together within Laos’ sovereign borders. Tourists can arrange any number or variation of treks out to these communities Here it’s euphemistically referred to as “cultural tourism” or “hill tribe trekking”, but it’s little more than foreigners piling into small villages, snapping photos, and buying bracelets and woven scarves and bags that, yes provide a much needed income to villagers, but also serve to commodify their cultural heritage in a manner that is now virtually impossible to break from.

You can see this cycle of dependency in the five Akha women who make a pilgrimage to Luang Nam Tha town each morning to peddle their wares to the handful of guesthouses that line the main street. These women are the sweetest touts you’ll find anywhere, but they are notoriously relentless – as I’ve sat writing this post, already each of the five have come back to me 2-3 times each. Like everyone else, I initially looked with some interest, declined, then gradually reduced the attention I give them as they return over and over throughout the day, otherwise I would spend literally every moment of the day shaking my head saying no. I joke with them, offer them water, laugh when they flash a small baggie of opium underneath a handful of bracelets, but always say no.

It’s a dependency I do not wish to support, but at the same time, these women rely entirely on this income for their families back in their village. This is a small example of the industry created off the last remaining cultural diversity in so many nations around the world. Tourists flood in to Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia looking for an “authentic” cultural experience (at least the ones who aren’t getting drunk at all hours of the day and night in places like Vang Vieng or any of Thailand’s southern islands). But where is the authenticity in a cultural exchange that only resists modernisation and retains tradition so long as there is a dollar earned in the process?

We make our way around this part of the world in search of whatever experiences come our way, and seek to learn what we can about each culture we encounter. But we do not wish to go out of our way to fuel a paradigm we don’t believe in. We have learned in our travels not to have too many expectations – like the tourists that come to Angkor Wat in Cambodia and expect to trek through the jungle and emerge into ancient temples, only to find that they instead have to go through Siem Reap, a town exclusively comprised of hotels and tourist traps, pub streets and cheap Chinese souvenirs as far as the eye can see.

Acceptance is key here – this is what the world looks like right now. There is no use lamenting a bygone era, when one could drive out to any village and see life the way it has existed for hundreds of years. The modern world is commodified through and through, and while we can all work in our own small way to change this for the better, the power of globalisation is and has been an immutable force. To arrive in a place and say “well this isn’t what I expected, where’s the real (insert location here)?” is a fruitless endeavour. Instead, we observe, we accept, and we learn from what we see and experience.

I started this post as a venting platform for my frustrations over having to stay in this small town rather than taking a motorbike out into the neighbouring mountains and jungles, but the rant took a different form. Regardless, I hereby proclaim that I accept my extra day in Luang Nam Tha, and will try to use it to crank out another post at some point in between working on an application for an extraordinary opportunity (more on that when I get accepted/rejected for it).

I’ve also just begun a small, intermittent fasting process, a process that will help me address my routine “hanger” problem and learn to accept my hunger, sit with it, and be okay with waiting for it to make its way to my stomach. I’ve done so by omitting breakfast to retain the fast that naturally takes place throughout our night’s sleep, eating a decent sized healthy lunch in the early afternoon, then eating a normal sized dinner, without snacking in between. With meditation comes a calmer mind, which abates patterns of stress-eating (my family always wondered where all the food I eat goes since I never gain any weight – I’ve finally realised it all went into my overactive mind!). The clarity I have begun to feel through this process is astounding, and sitting with a cold and limiting my movements of course makes it a bit easier as well. Great training for my Vipassana meditation course, just three weeks away!

Accepting my sickness, accepting my stillness, accepting these Akha women’s need for our money. I guess I can buy a bracelet or two…

Make a house a home

“Transience is the key to stability.”

I made that quote up. But the fabricated wisdom therein is becoming more and more invaluable each day, as we tote an ever-dwindling arsenal of backpacking essentials on our backs, schlepping our collective mobile-home from one Southeast Asian town to the next in search of a new life.

A tent (thanks REI sales), sleeping bag (thanks Jonny), yoga mat (thanks traveler who abandoned it), day pack (thanks Aunt Gloria), reusable water bottle (thanks Jonny again), Aeropress coffee maker (thanks Aunt Joy), beard oil (thanks Sugar Mountain Apothecary!), a dream catcher (thanks Sophie), a few changes of clothes, some headlamps, watercolor paints, two notebooks, a portable speaker, photography gear, and a laptop (big thanks to the lovely Lao gentleman who just fixed it for free!). It’s not much…other backpackers wonder how the hell we get by with so little (here’s a neat trick…pack light, think lighter, get rid of what doesn’t get used ASAP, and accept the loss of clothes, headphones, iPods, etc. as sacrifices to the Goddess of the Road). But, in a very material sense, it’s home.

So the second we check ourselves into a guesthouse, a hostel dormitory, a camping spot, a homestay, first thing’s first: “Make a house a home!”

The token cry sends us both in a frenzy of unpacking every single thing from our bags, putting folded clothes on shelves, hanging used clothes out to air dry on every hook, nail or splintered piece of wood we can see, lining up our shoes, unrolling the yoga mat facing out any available window/balcony/door, organising our books on bedside tables, adorning the head of the bed with our dream catcher, and draping kangas and scarves about for decoration.

It all takes about 5 minutes, and of course we modify this process for each space, making use of the inside pockets of our beloved tent or the ladders and rails of any dormitory bunk bed we’re forced to spend a night in.

Regardless of where we lay our heads, we always make it – and call it – home.

When you never sleep in the same place for more than three or four nights in a row, this ritual grounds us, and syncs our energies with the place we are calling home that night. It may sound silly, but it keeps the transience from wearing on us, and keeps us going. We possess as little as we can, and actively avoid fuelling consumerism wherever we go, but what we do possess forms some semblance of familiarity in otherwise unfamiliar physical spaces.

Until we find ourselves in another physical space that we call home for a bit longer, we will never stop feeling some sense of stability wherever we go, and will never stop feeling at home right where we are (and, of course, it helps when home is always right there in our arms.)

*As so many of these blogs often do, this one was serendipitously synced with a lovely song, “Home” – Icarus (Lane 8 remix). Beautiful.

The (not so) little things…

I feel I reached a milestone in my journey today worth sharing, for those who continue to follow these scattered ramblings of personal exploration. We have crossed the Cambodian border into the southern tip of Laos, and arrived in a small slice of paradise called Si Phan Don, or the 4000 Islands, a series of brilliant green islands and islets scattered across a vast swath of the Mekong River. We spent our first evening lazing in hammocks on the veranda of our $6 bungalow, watching the dry season’s blood-red sun dipping behind the opposite side of the river. We followed this with a day of cycling around two of the larger islands, Don Dhet and Don Khon, chasing more waterfalls and exploring the maze of jungle paths that connect them.

Then, last night admittedly failed to meet my expectations: we have found ourselves in the one place in southern Laos with any sort of party scene, and while the first night we got in we avoided the crowd on the ‘Khaosan-esque’ strip of Don Dhet, last night I was feeling like socializing and seeing what the advertised “jungle party” was all about down the west side of the island. We instead ate two plates of tasty food, drank a few Beer Laos, and fell asleep around 8:45pm. I awoke at midnight, disappointed that we were missing out on what may have been a great night of dancing and socializing with other travelers. My mind raced to contemplations of aging and how my 30 year old body feels after a day of relatively minimal physical activity compared to how it felt at 20. These thoughts kept me awake until 3am, when I finally fell into a troublingly dream-full sleep…

I awoke again just before sunrise, watching the mist roll across the river out our window. I felt myself to be on the wrong side of the bed, so to speak. I felt anger and frustration creeping in, felt myself getting annoyed with passing sounds of crying babies and polluting long-tail fishing boats, watched as my mind raced with worries about finances and began to deeply entangle myself with those thoughts, and to top it all off, I was especially perturbed when my Headspace app wouldn’t load on my phone to guide me through the last of my ‘anger pack’. I was convinced that today was to be a “bad day” where my anger would get the best of me.

Normally, I would accept that today was a wash and brood in my frustration, taking it out on my partner and those with whom I interacted throughout the day. This would typically culminate in my digging into past annoyances and blowing them out of proportion, drawing drastic conclusions about where my future was heading, and just generally being a bit of an asshole to the world.

Today I didn’t let that happen.

Instead, I put my phone and dysfunctional Headspace app away, unfurled my yoga mat on a nearby terrace, guided myself through a practice followed by a truly magnificent chakra meditation, scanning my energetic centers and pulling the wisdom of the water before me into each one. When I was finished with these healing exercises, the real test lay before me: carrying that feeling of calm and patience into the rest of the day, starting with my first interaction of the morning with my loving partner…and here’s the really interesting part that perhaps some of you can relate to: when I have mornings like this, even if I’m able to bring myself to a healthy space while on my own, as soon as I interact with those closest to me, I will somehow stubbornly default back to an air of “everything is not okay and I’m going to make that abundantly clear right now.” I’ve never understood this process, but through meditation I’ve gained a great understanding for how our minds are prone to desperately cling to emotional energies even once we think we’ve parted ways with them. For me, this manifests through these immediate interactions after I find a sort of temporary inner-peace in the company of myself alone.

Today, the remedy was simple in theory, but can be a colossal challenge for those of us who understand this process of the egoic mind holding tight to anger, sadness or general dis-ease. I committed to greeting everyone I encountered with a smile and a “good morning!” In a rare feat of self-discipline, I was able to do exactly this, and as a result, the calm and positivity inculcated through my morning meditation and practice were carried into the remainder of my day.

This may all seem a bit trivial, but it is these ostensibly small milestones that build up to the larger advances in our personal journeys, and they should be celebrated and recorded so we may solidify their significance. Whatever your journey may be, don’t be modest about your own achievements – shout them out to the world and, most importantly, to yourself, so that the rewards of each one continue to fuel your commitment to your own personal growth, even if it’s just as simple as smiling and saying hello.

Sacred Science

I try to stay off email list-serves unless they serve me particularly well. The Sacred Science never fails to send just the right message to my inbox at just the right moment. I highly recommend signing up! Here’s today’s nugget of wisdom, an ancient text from an unknown author…

“You are beginning to understand, aren’t you?
That the whole world is inside you –
in your perspectives and in your heart.
That to be able to find peace,
you must be at peace with yourself first;
and to truly enjoy life,
you must enjoy who you are.
Once you learn how to master this,
you will be protected from everything
that makes you feel like you cannot go on.
With this gift of recognizing yourself,
even when you are alone,
you will never be lonely.”

What’s your sign?

Today as we were cycling through the jungles of Si Phon Don in the southernmost reaches of Laos, trying to find a less trodden path to the famed Khone Pha Pheng Waterfall, we were met with a seemingly endless barrage of obstacles. The first was a collapsed bridge, which we could not pass with our bikes. We had seen this warning on maps.me, our offline map of choice in Southeast Asia, but with some clever maneuvering, we were able to find another crossing. Proud of ourselves for defying the mapped-out odds, we continued, only to have our path blocked by a potentially unfriendly water buffalo standing right in between us and the road ahead. We waited a few minutes, and eventually he lost interest and rambled into the bushes.

Undeterred, we continued yet again, only to find another, much larger and far more collapsed bridge, hovering precariously over a 5 meter drop to a dried up creek-bed below. Unable to find an alternative, we were forced to turn back.

Along the way back to the main bicycle path, we once again found the bull that had blocked our way, but this time, he was locked horn-in-horn with yet another massive bull. We watched their testosterone-fueled competition with slowly dwindling interest, soon realizing that we were trapped between a collapse bridge and two jacked-up buffalo in the middle of the jungle, with bikes too heavy to carry through the thick bush around us. Twenty minutes ticked by before they finally lost interest in their duel and disappeared into the trees, allowing us to pass.

We are not nearly as persuaded by astrological insights as we are by the push and pull of the lunar cycles that guide our journeys around the globe, but as two Tauruses dating and traveling the world together, we couldn’t help but wonder: what message is the Universe trying to tell us here?

I was reminded of my previous reflections on the two dogs who interrupted my meditation last week, of a never-ending reflection of the duality of self. This encounter could have different meanings for both of us, or it could be a message about our relationship with each other (we never fight, rarely disagree, but we are both admittedly stubborn as hell). Regardless, it is yet another addition to a pattern of encounters with the wild world, a series of moments the Universe passes on to us to learn from.

We’re listening! We promise!

The Year of the Dog(s)

In the spirit of commitment to personal growth, I have been chronicling my journey deeper into the daily practice of meditation, keeping records of thoughts that kept my mind busy during each meditation, challenges to my focus, and milestones along the journey. The experience I’ve just had during my morning session compelled me to share this publicly.

I have admittedly had great difficulty in the process of emptying, clearing, or bringing much stillness to my mind. I know that the first stages of the meditative journey do not require immediate stillness, but rather the key is to observe thoughts as the come and gently let them go. Each time I sit down for my daily guided meditation, I am instructed to get into a comfortable seated position, to breathe deeply in through the nose and out through the mouth, to close my eyes and begin to breathe normally, bringing my attention first to the sounds and sensations in my immediate sphere, then to the feeling of the weight of my body on the ground and my hands and arms resting on my legs, and finally to the breath. I generally sit for 15 minutes, twice per day, having worked my way up from a brief morning session of only five minutes since I began a Headspace pack focuses specifically on anger.

The ‘anger pack’ is part of my current journey to understand the feelings of anger that can sometimes rise up within me, feelings that recently became increasingly triggered during my life in the often hectic city of Kampala. For years, that anger was, to me, a sorry gift from an angry father, and throughout adolescence and much of my twenties I blamed the anger that I felt on him for passing it down to me through years of socialization. It took me a long time to forgive and move past these feelings of resentment and realize that, as an adult with full agency and ownership over my own emotions and mental states, that this anger was my own, and I rather than try to banish it forever into the depths of my past (which I never had the slightest idea how to do), it was better to understand my relationship with that anger, so that I might use it in a positive way to fuel my activism and give me the strength to fight for what I believe in, without letting the anger control my thought patterns, emotions or actions.

Nearing completion with the Headspace ‘anger pack’ before moving on to the ‘acceptance pack’, I sat down beneath a large mango tree after a rejuvenating morning vinyasa flow, and went through a twenty minute meditation. Shortly before the session wound down and I was free to cease focused attention on my breath and let my mind do whatever it wanted, my mind had already begun wandering to the fact that 2018 is the Year of the Dog, an idea that resonates deeply through past reflections on my “tenacious dog nature” discussed in Clarissa Pinkhola Estes, Women Who Run With the Wolves, as well as through ongoing discussions about the parable of the two wolves at war inside of all of us, one of which “represents things like kindness, bravery and love, the other…represents things like greed, hatred and fear.” The winner of this war depends, of course, on the wolf we choose to feed.

As I reflected on this idea and was instructed to open my eyes, I was immediately confronted by two dogs playing in the garden – one black, one white. They playfully flung themselves down on my yoga mat, one instantly began wrapping its mouth around my arm, the other biting at the rough bits of mat at my feet. I stopped listening to what the Headspace guide, Andy, was saying about anger and jumped to my feet in a brief fit of frustration and, yes, anger, as I scooped up my headphones out of one of the dogs’ mouths. My “surge” (the word I use to describe the rush of intense emotion and reactionary behavior that shoots up from within when faced with triggers) lasted only a few seconds, and once I was able to yank the yoga mat from under their feet and roll it up, I took a deep breath, watched the exhale leave my body, and sent the anger along with it.

I view moments like these as powerful messages from the Universe, regardless of whether or not I’m in a state of mind to listen very well. Understandably, this particular experience was impossible not to listen to.

My fascination with Estes’ discussion of the parable of manawee lies predominantly in the idea of the “tenacious dog nature” within some men that pushes us to better understand the women we love (for me, I feel this has far-reaching implications for the work I do as well). Through constant distraction, the dog in the parable is still able to discover what he needs in order to bring fulfillment to his master and best friend, a reminder that persistence and patience always pay off in the end. I’m equally fascinated by Estes’ observation that a dog’s life is filled with a never-ending cacophony of sound, representing for me the mind’s default state of being incessantly flooded with too many thoughts to make sense of, keep track of, or allow to pass, all while being a constant audience to the sublime language of the Universe.

These two dogs came to me this morning for a reason, as a reminder: our dual nature is not our enemy, it can be our friend, and we can play with it as much as these dogs tried to play with me. Although I perceived them as coming to me at an inopportune time, I think that’s a powerful part of the lesson – to accept and allow each moment in our day, no matter how out of place it may seem according to our expectations. The duality in me keeps me reflecting on how I can be – and feed – the best version of myself possible, and the persistence of the dog in the manawee parable reminds me to not let distractions get in the way of my ultimate journey.

Our relationship with anger can change, and I am seeing to it that mine does, each and every day. As my morning Headspace alarm reminded me today, “If everything is always changing, then that includes us too. There is no fixed identity, it’s an illusion – set it free.” What better time than The Year of the Dog to explore these ideas more deeply and maintain the patience, tenacity and love required to bring about radical growth.

As for now, I’m going to go play with those dogs.